Friday, June 29, 2007

NEWS Longer Museum Summer Opening Times Florence

Beginning in July and ending in September both the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia Gallery will extend their hours until 10pm on select Tuesdays and Fridays.

The Uffizi Gallery will remain open until 10:00pm every Tuesday beginning July 3 and the Accademia Gallery will be open until 10:00pm each Friday beginning July 6.

(The museum will be open until 10:00pm on Saturday September 22 as it will be closed on on Friday 21 September).

Make a reservation for our Masterpeices of the Uffizi Gallery Tour or our Original David Tour to avoid waits on long lines.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Artviva July 2007 Italy Travel Writing Competition:Michael L. Baum

Our Trip to Italy, April 17 to May 8, 2007

It was an experience. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Well, actually, our experience was the world, or at least a small part of it – an exciting, beautiful, mesmerizing part of it: Italy – from Rome and Ostia Antica, then northwards to Florence, Pisa, Siena, Venice, Padua, Verona, Bergamo, and Milan – a three-week adventure filled with great art, grand and small churches, fantastic museums, tasty food and enjoyable eating, friendly people, old friends, new acquaintances, wonderful surprises, and more.
My wife Prosper and I flew overnight from San Francisco and landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport on April 18. From there, we took a taxi to our hotel. Roberto, our taxi driver, was very informative as he pointed out some sights along the way. Roberto said he had won Mr. Italy and Mr. Universe titles years before becoming a taxi driver. True or not, Roberto was our first experience with the delightful, friendly, and helpful Italian people.
April 19 was our first full day in Italy, and we took guided tours of the Coliseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. Knowledgeable tour company co-owner Maximiliano led the Coliseum tour, and his well informed and delightfully wisecracking employee Paola took us through the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum.
The following day, we took a guided tour of Vatican City. Paola led us through the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica and Square.
The art in the museum was unbelievably beautiful; the painted ceilings were especially impressive; the church was huge and ornate; and the square and the Bernini colonnades surrounding it on two sides were magnificent.
The Sistine Chapel: What can I say? How can I describe it? I do know I could feel the elation in my chest as I entered this chapel. To be in the presence of this masterpiece was an honor and a gift.
Several other times in Italy I had that feeling in my chest when I knew I was to be in the presence of great art, most notably when I felt the anticipation of standing in the serene light of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel frescoes in Padua and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. I felt physical changes inside my chest, and my eyes watered slightly as I approached the entrances to these gifts to the world. I was overwhelmed.
It is hard to believe that human minds, hearts, and hands could create some of what we saw, especially the sculptures. I can understand a painter putting his conception of a great religious or other event on a wall, a board, or a canvas, but for a sculptor to carve from a block of marble or other stone, the muscles, the veins, the strength in the eyes, the tension in the body – of a David, or a Christ, or some other figure – that is truly amazing.
We stayed in Rome for six days, and as we traveled around this great city, I kept saying, “It gets better and better” every time we walked inside another church, whether the outside was grand, ornate, plain, or even unattractive. We often found treasures by acknowledged masters (Michelangelo, Donatello, Ghiberti, Caravaggio, and so on) or by “lesser” artists.
At Rome’s Church of St. Peter in Chains, we saw Michelangelo’s bold and forceful Moses statue. We also looked at the statues of Rachel and Leah that flank Moses. The author of our Italy travel guide says the statues of these women are “unfinished,” but I could not tell; perhaps Michelangelo had not yet sculpted some veins in their faces (he was that talented!).
At Rome’s Trevi Fountain, Prosper and I threw coins in the fountain. Tradition holds that someone who throws a coin into this fountain is guaranteed to return to Rome. I hope that holds true for us.
We saw only a small portion of what the cities and towns we visited had to offer. But Prosper and I were happy to see what we did with our limited time in bella Italia. I wanted our dream trip to Italy to be an enjoyable, memorable, and relaxing experience that would not exhaust us, one in which we took our time without feeling we had to see it all, so that we could enjoy a particular sight or place or event by lingering and absorbing what we saw. I think I accomplished that goal.
At the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, we lingered in front of Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy sculpture. How anyone can sculpt a block of marble into such transcendent beauty is a mystery to me. I don’t know if there is a god, but if there is, maybe what some people say about the greats (Mozart, the divine Michelangelo, and others.) is true: their talent is a gift from God.
In Rome, I renewed my friendship with several Italian friends I had met in San Francisco thirty years ago. Prosper met them for the first time when we joined them for their wonderful cooking and hospitality at their home in Rome.
Rome was energetic and exciting, with automobiles, ambulances, police cars, motorcycles, and motor scooters madly careening down the streets; people filling the sidewalks; and restaurants, shops, and street kiosks selling their goods. Prosper and I really liked Rome. But Rome was but one of many stops on our tour.
We visited Ostia Antica, a now uninhabited ancient Roman port city. The fact that its buildings are in ruins does not denigrate the interesting historical significance and visual elegance of the place.
Highlights of our stay in Florence included a trip to the Accademia, where we sat in awe of the David statue by Michelangelo. What a great legacy Michelangelo (and other Renaissance geniuses) left behind for the world. We also took a walking tour of Florence (our guide, Emiko, was delightful and knowledgeable and introduced us to the glories of this important city). On our own, we saw the Massacio frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel; several outdoor markets (Prosper touched the nose of the Il Porcellino bronze pig statue – does this guarantee Prosper a return trip to Florence some day?); a famous 3-D painting by Massacio inside the Church of Santa Maria Novella; and the Uffizi’s great collection of Italian art.
In Pisa, of course we saw the Leaning Tower, one of the several structures in the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles). In Pisa’s Baptistery (the largest in Italy), we heard the security guard “harmonize” with himself with the aid of echoes in this acoustically gifted building (this is done every half hour while the Baptistry is open, starting at 10 am, and we stayed long enough to listen twice).
In Siena, we visited the Duomo and again found ourselves at a magnificent church. I think I looked at it and said, “unbelievable” (a word I used often during our trip). We also spent time in the large public square (Il Campo), people watching, relaxing, and snacking on panforte.
In Venice, we visited St. Mark’s Square twice; strolled through the Jewish Ghetto, the oldest in Europe (where I put on tefillin and prayed in Hebrew); explored Venice’s wide streets, tiny alleyways, and Grand Canal (the latter on the vaporetto water boat); and took a trip to the glass-making Murano Island.
In Padua, we toured the University of Padua; enjoyable the colorful vendor stalls at the Piazza delle Erbe; spent 40 minutes inside the Scrovegni Chapel soaking up the power of Giotto’s beautiful and evocative frescoes covering the life of Mary and Christ on the side walls, and his Last Judgment on the back wall; and unexpectedly – and happily – attended church services in the Basilica of Saint Anthony (not rushing on our trip allowed us to adjust our schedule to take advantage of unanticipated opportunities when they presented themselves).
In Verona, we strolled along its ritzy shopping street and walked elsewhere in town. Even with the rain we encountered, it was still fun going around this charming town.
In Bergamo, we took a funicular to get to the Alta Citta (Old City) on the hill. We walked the Old City streets, passing bakeries, pizza and other restaurants, and shops. One of the best dinners we had on our trip was in the Old City.
In Milan, we went inside the magnificent Duomo and also took an elevator to its roof, where we walked among the amazing statues and spires. We saw da Vinci's The Last Supper, and on a ritzy shopping street, we looked in shop windows at clothes we could not afford to buy, but were fun to look at anyway.

Oh, the food! In Rome’s Chinatown, Prosper and I found the oldest gelateria in Rome. We each had a “small” cone, but the 1.50 Euro each price still gave both Prosper and me two sizeable scoops of gelato (I had strawberry and pistachio) plus one scoop of whipped cream on top. It’s a good thing we were walking many miles per day to stay “even” weight-wise (or so we hoped!).
Pizza – pasta – panforte – bread – calzone – gelato – panini – dolce – polenta – risotto con asparagi – and more. Bread on the table before many meals, good pizza and pasta, lots of sweets and ice cream, and taking our time to enjoy it all – this was our eating adventure in Italy for three weeks.

We met some very nice and interesting people in Italy. To meet people, all I had to do was be outgoing and start conversations with strangers. This led to many enjoyable interactions. For example, while we were having dinner at a Florence restaurant, I used my only fair Italian language skills to ask a question of a lady who was resetting one of the tables. That little bit of opening up led to us making the acquaintance of a delightful group of family members in this family-owned and -operated restaurant.
Also in Florence, an older woman who was our waitress for lunch, learning that we were from the United States (naturally I told her this Italian), spontaneously told us (in Italian) that she liked Americans, that she had been to the American cemetery in Florence not many days earlier, and that she was grateful to the Americans who crossed the Arno River in World War II and helped liberate Italy.
In Pisa, a group of kids on a school field trip were playing on grassy field near the Duomo in the Campo dei Miracoli. When I got out my camera and started to ask them (in Italian) if I could take their picture, one little girl was the first to notice me, and when I said I wanted “a picture for the United States,” she smiled, and the other kids heard me, and all of a sudden they all ran together and formed a great group in what seemed like an instant, and they were yelling and screaming and smiling and posing and raising their hands and making V signs with their fingers. I have a wonderful photograph as a memory of that sweet event. Just think: a bunch of happy kids in a photograph I will treasure, just from a couple of words I spoke about taking their picture to take to the United States.

Italy: The art and architecture are magnificent; the food delicious; and the people outgoing, friendly, and helpful. If I had to choose one of these as my favorite experience, it probably would be the people. They brought Italy to life and added an unexpected but welcome addition to what we had already planned to do on our trip. I would like to take trips to other places, but our trip to Italy was so wonderful, that returning home on May 8 was too soon, and I would like to return. Ciao, Italia. We will be back.
Michael L. Baum

Artviva July 2007 Italy Travel Writing Competition: Rebbeca Bell

Italia Thoughts

Tuscany will take your heart, tear it up and leave you coming back for more. I promise, you will return home, aching for the cappuccino, the wine and the bluest sky you've ever seen. How it happens exactly, I cannot say, but I can attest to it myself.

Never mind the late or cancelled trains (causing you to be stranded in a town several miles from your destination), the strikes, the unpredictable store hours or internet unavailability. Upon your homecoming you will ask others, and will find that they too were sorry they left.

"Why did you return to the States?" you'll inquire, and receive one dutiful answer after another: "I came back for my cousin's wedding," one said, "I only had two weeks off from work," (a likely story) and "I spent all my money," (an easy thing to do there). And why did I return? My plane was booked and I had to catch it. Yes, another dutiful answer and one I wholeheartedly regret.

I should have stayed there, soaking up the Tuscan sun and olive oil. I didn’t even get to Venice or Rome; I spent 12 days in the olive groves. I lived like a local, stopping at the piazza café/bar for a cappuccino in the morning and a glass of el vino rossa in the evening. I made friends and, yes, even a lover. I took day trips to the nearby towns, sampled bits of local flavor and watched the Mediterranean Sea crash on the shore.

A palpable life force dominates in Italy -- a vitality that fills you up, more than you knew you could be; but then leaves you empty of all your red blood upon your return to the States. An old saying resonates: Italians have two veins; one for café and one for vino. I wonder, can a displaced Americano have this too?

“This is Italy,” becomes a phrase you will hear often. They do things on their time and in their own way. Don’t expect to change it. “Go with the flow,” may be a phrase you should recite from time to time. Especially, if oh, the last train is cancelled and you find out later from the locals - to never trust the last train. Don’t expect to find a store open between 1-4PM, that they will actually open at the time stated, or a train schedule ANYWHERE! Most Italians will be friendly with you if you try speaking in their tongue; but, especially in Tuscany, charades may be your only choice.

Aside from mere trivialities, Italy really is what you've heard:
The romance. Where else can you have a barbecue at a 500 year old villa located in an olive grove, and pluck fresh rosemary and sage from the adjoining fields to throw on the grill? Where else is the view so charming and the men so disarming? A word to the wise: do not let your guard down; you can fall in love easily. I’m warning you, upon your return to the States, your heart will feel displaced for quite some time. (Not speaking from experience, of course!)

The language. Is there any language more beautiful? The Italian spoken today was specifically chosen from the region of Tuscany because it was the closest and best sounding of all the dialects that dominated each region. In the 14th Century they realized they needed a national language and so chose the one you hear today for its eloquence and ease of ear. The wine. Even if you don't like wine, you'll like it in Italy. Not much to say here, you have to taste it for yourself; but a bit too much will not end in a headache --you won’t even get drunk! (Unless you try really hard!)
Of course, the olives. Olive groves, olive oil, olives, they are all in abundance. So fresh, velvety and delicious! Indulge, your skin will thank you for all the polyphenols and antioxidants. The trees themselves are quite captivating. Don’t expect to get much shade under these ancient beauties, their silvery leaves twist and turn to reflect the light.

Lastly, the sky. This is truly the best part. A sky so blue, so deep, so luscious, so close you could step up into it and so low, it covers the mountains like a blanket. Look to the sky every day. You will be amazed; never have I seen a sky like that. I would return just to gaze into it. Ah, to see a sky like that in Columbus, Ohio!

There is much to say, but you need to experience it for yourself. Suck the marrow out of life; it’s easy to do there. There will be stressors, like the trains, the strikes, the store closures during siesta, but go knowing that Italy will embrace you and slap your hand all at the same time.

And, you will come back for more.

Rebecca Bell

Artviva July 2007 Italy Travel Writing Competition: Julia Speht

Sorrento Beyond Summer (for the Gourmet)

My partner and I love to escape for a cheap winter break in January and in previous years we’ve picked up a package deal to Egypt or similar sunny collapse-and-sleep type places. This year, we went in search of culture, gourmet food and mountainous views in Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

As package deals out of season were not an option, we made our own DIY holiday combining four nights in a mountain farmhouse with views over the Bay of Naples, with three nights eating our way through the gourmet food of an international cookery school in Sant’Agata village on the outskirts of Sorrento.

We’re not sunbathers so the daily temperatures of Southern Italy (15-20 degrees) appealed, particularly as we planned visits to both Pompeii and Herculaneum, but didn’t much fancy trudging through the dusty ruins in glaring heat. In fact we had the ruins almost to ourselves: no queues; no noisy school groups; and no elbows or rucksacks in my Roman photographs. It made the experience much more enjoyable, especially in Herculaneum where on our way back to the train station we stumbled across a local wine shop selling home-made strawberry wine for €4.00 which was naturally sparkling and deceptively strong, but washed down the chocolate panettone perfectly on our return train journey.

We were surprised though to find ourselves on the sunny beach with a light breeze in Amalfi eating ice-creams in mid-January! However it seemed that this was not warm enough for the mainstream, because we were delighted to find availability for anything – and everything – we wanted to book. This drove the price down considerably, and we found ourselves scooping up bargains as tourists were few and far between.

We had no problems either booking into our favourite agritourismo farmhouse apartment in the Priora hills - 2km north of Sorrento - following a lemon-grove walk up the hill with glimpses of the sea, curving its way around the rocky cliffs into the distance. The owners always stock the kitchen with their own farm produce depending on season: I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be growing on the 19th January as back in blighty we had frosts and rain downpours. When we arrived, however the fruit bowl was overflowing with fresh oranges, huge lemons, misshapen pears and apples. The fridge revealed locally-produced cheese and butter, large eggs, home-cured ham and freshly baked bread with a hint of cumin. The usual staples of home grown onions, giant garlic and bushes of basil were still there, as were the jars of hand-picked tomatoes, passata and peppers. We revelled in this find and devoured a feast on our terrace overlooking the bay of Naples, as the lights twinkled in the sunset and white crests of waves flickered back at us until we couldn’t see anything except the lights of ships fading out to sea.

With aching calf muscles after four days of hiking up and down the lemon-grove hill from Priora, we had begun to feel at home in this sleepy hillside village: nodding hello to the neighbouring farms as we strolled past in the morning; listening to the church bells of afternoon mass as we clamboured back up the hill in the evening, clutching the treasures we had bought from the market during the day. The owners – Gina and Marco – had a new puppy which had also taken a liking to us and would greet us in the morning as we set out breakfast on the terrace to enjoy the view.

By the second day our relationship had progressed to the stage where the puppy was following us down the hill as far as the church, then barking a goodbye. On the last day, she had followed us almost a mile into the centre of Sorrento and we feared for her safety, having no lead or method of persuading her to return home. In the city centre she ran off down a side street, leaving us to ponder her all day, haunted by visions of her being run over by maniac motorbikes or a flashy sports car. Of course, as we reached the apartment at 10pm that night, she was waiting to greet us outside the door. As we bade farewell the following morning to Gina and Marco, they just shrugged at this and offered us a drink of home made Perno – this was a kind of liqueur made of fennel and incredibly strong. It was quite difficult to manage at 11am, but the result was a surprisingly warm sensation and strength of flavour that lasted for hours.

They enquired politely as to our plans, and we described our next B&B and planned trip to Naples on the train, to taste “real” pizza Neapolitan style. Marco thought this was very strange, and a long way to travel pizza. Why hadn’t we said so earlier? We could have joined their family on Friday nights, when they always have home-made pizza and bake the fresh bread for the following week. We looked sheepish, feeling like extravagant foolish tourists with more money than sense, and promised to return another year when we could participate in the Friday ritual.

On this occasion however, we had already booked into the famous International cookery school, Mami Camilla bed and breakfast with a discount package including dinner and a cookery class.

This turned out to be a real bargain as dinner was an orgasmic four-course affair of home-made delicacies from fresh local produce which the International chef and his team of students have spent the afternoon preparing with dedication and enthusiasm.

My day’s cookery class was exciting and delicious, with students scribbling down notes, and deliveries of fresh local ingredients interrupting regularly. It was clear that the head chef had many friends at wholesalers and suppliers, as well as famous restaurants in the city, when freshly made cheese, eggs and vegetables arrived with uproar, banter and exchanging of drinks. We learnt to make fairly complicated recipes and could taste, smell and touch throughout the afternoon which I found very enjoyable. I was one of six students and we all watched the hulking Italian head chef in awe as he explained every move in detail and invited us to copy various elements of the dishes – rolling the gnocchi; lining the soufflé cases; filling the cranoli baskets; whisking the becemal sauce etc.

Further interruptions came from the chef’s family – loud arguments with his wife, which usually ended in doors being slammed; excitable exchanges with his son and telephone exclamations with his daughter. These were all accompanied by arm waving and expletives in Italian, but usually included loud laughter and hilarity, whilst the six students desperately tried to hold together lumpy cheese sauce and overflowing vegetable pans until he returned, and with one wave of his hand, silenced the bubbling and panic.

Our first night treated us to Cauliflower soufflé, meatball lasagne, Bresola of Veal, followed by Sicilian cranoli for desert, washed down with local wine at 5 euros a carafe. Sitting round the communal dinner table with the other guests and cookery students from all over the world, we felt very much at home in the Italian family’s traditional house. At nearly midnight we made our excuses from the table and picked our way through the private lemon groves to our farmhouse apartment to sleep, until the roosters woke us the next day with the pouring sunlight into our rustic bedroom.

But our gourmet pilgrimage was not yet complete: we had found details of a local restaurant on the Internet that claimed to be a member of the “Slow Food Movement” in Sant’Agata, a small village 7 km inland from Sorrento. The restaurant, “Lo Stuzzichino” is known to locals as a low-key rustic place, playing second fiddle to the much revered “Don Alfonso” restaurant on the same road – “now that is the good restaurant in Sant’Agata!” our hosts confirmed. Yes, with three Michelin stars it ought to be. But our twenty minuets bus ride was worth more than just the spectacular views across the two gulfs (of Naples and Salerno), and the cute mountain village life in quaint Sant’Agata, with crumbly church bells pealing out in the hazy sunlight of the afternoon. Elderly ladies tottered through the cobbled streets with small dogs and shopping bags of groceries; although the small row of shops only seemed to stock lingerie, hand-made chocolates or cakes.

We walked past the prestigious sign for Don Alfonso (since 1890) to see that he too, was taking advantage of “low season” to make major renovations to the building. With delight, we scurried onto the cosy, “rustic” haven of Lo Stuzzichino with the walls covered in photographs of the staff in various states of merriment, and with certificates of award or thank you letters from food critics. Here we sank into our wicker-spun chairs for the mouth-watering marathon that followed, with time suspended in a delicious equilibrium of perfection and relaxation. Our waiter, a qualified sommelier, spoke melodic English and recommended the daily specials which we accepted without blinking. Over the next three hours we savoured delicious home made local specialities such as bruschetta, fresh seafood linguine; peasant’s potato pasta soup; local cheeses and home made cheesecake for desert. All this at extremely reasonable prices (we paid less than 20 Euros a head for a four course meal with wine and liqueurs and coffees) in a warm homely restaurant which was also bustling, romantic, and full of locals enjoying their village treasure.

In fact, we were the only English speakers in Sant’Agata that day; and on most days during our holiday – relaxing in itself. In Sorrento, where the main hotels were closed and the tacky cafes offering menus touristicos were shut for the winter, we found ourselves walking the passiegata with the locals. More importantly we didn’t feel hassled or hustled. Even if we were recognised as English, we weren’t treated as tourists, but with a friendly, curious welcome.

Our day trip out to Amalfi, as hair-raising as ever along the zig-zag hairpin bends of the mountainous route in the cliffs, was also a private exclusive pleasure with just the six of us on the local bus. The only crowds in Amalfi were the stream of teenagers pouring out of the local school at lunchtime: noisy, excitable, dapper. And the smart gathering of a local wedding on the steps of the famous, awe-inspiring Duomo in the main square. We felt privileged to have been allowed this insight into daily Italian life, so often obscured by “O Sole Mio” ice cream sellers, particularly in this beauty spot where wealthy travellers have been holidaying for centuries.

It seems that all the iconic parts of Italian holidays: food, scenery, culture, climate can be best enjoyed away from the madding crowd, but not by choosing obscure locations and missing world-class heritage, but by braving the winter weather and seeing this delicious country “at rest” away from the glare of the usual tourist season.

Julia Speht. 30.01.07.
Ryan Air from Gatwick to Naples, Sunday flights, £55 each including taxes.
Pink Elephant car parking (long stay) £36 for one week, Gatwick airport.

Mami Camille B&B
Via Cocumella, 4. tel.

The “Winter Special” costs 320 Euros for a double room, bed, breakfast and 4 course evening meal (for 2 people) for 3 nights; or 260 Euros for a single. This includes an activity (Excursion to the Amalfi coast or a cookery lesson with the International chef, Longo Biagini)

Lo Stuzzichino Restaurant
Via Deserto 1/A, S.Agata sui due golf
Massalubrense, Tel. 081.5330010. www.ristorantelostuzzichino